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Tenants in Santa Ana Expand Rent Strike, Claim 500 Backers

February 23, 1985|DAVID REYES | Times Staff Writer

The rent strike by Latino tenants fighting slum conditions in Santa Ana was expanded Friday to include at least 500 apartment dwellers in five neighborhoods, tenant leaders said. The strikers are seeking to force landlords to make repairs.

"We now have tenants from apartments on Logan Street, Mortimer, about 20 apartments on Minnie Street and two or three apartments on Standard," said Maria Rosa Lopez, a volunteer organizer with Hermandad Mexicana Nacional, an immigrants' rights group that is helping the tenants. "All in all, that's about 500 or more people."

Marched in Front of Courthouse

Lopez made the comments following a protest demonstration that attracted more than 100 Spanish-speaking renters Friday morning. They marched, single file, in front of the county courthouse in Santa Ana and chanted, "They won't move us out!" Many vowed to continue withholding rent "until we win."

The rent rebellion began with sporadic protests in November, December and January, mostly involving people who live in six buildings in the 1200 block of West Brook Street. In February, as the tenants--many of whom may be illegal aliens--became more organized, more than 300 of them agreed to quit paying rent.

Lopez said that this week, as the strike attracted attention and organizing efforts were stepped up, other tenants joined the movement, which coincides with a city crackdown on blighted housing.

Housing experts and community activists say it is the first time in recent years in the United States that a group of Latino residents, the majority of whom are here illegally, have been organized in a renters' strike, or have united on such a large scale to demand action from local government.

Demonstrators said the march Friday was to celebrate a legal victory on Thursday: Orange County Legal Aid attorneys won a temporary restraining order prohibiting any owner of a struck building to shut off utilities, evict anyone or threaten to report striking tenants to immigration authorities. The order is effective until March 11, when a hearing is scheduled in Superior Court.

Richard L. Spix, a Legal Aid attorney, said the court order places a "protective blanket" around the tenants, pending negotiations with attorneys for the landlords. He said landlord Carmine Esposito, of Villa Park, one of the defendants in the case, is to meet Monday with attorneys and representatives of the tenants.

Other landlords named in the lawsuit, and their rental properties, are Michael and Stella Gonzales, 1030 and 1102 S. Minnie St.; Paul and Marcela Cruz, 1006 N. Logan St.; Jarnail and Sheela Mudan, 411-413 Mortimer St.; James Isbill, 611 E. Washington Ave.; and Bernard Baron and Jesus Estrada, owners of 601 E. Third St. and 212 and 214 North Olive St. None of the owners could be reached for comment Friday.

Rent Going into Fund

Spix said Superior Court Commissioner Greer H. Stroud, who signed the restraining order Thursday afternoon, also ordered Legal Aid to establish and administer a special fund to ensure that rents are collected during the strike. "Those who don't pay (their rent into the holding fund) will not be protected under her ruling," Spix added.

Robert Cohen, Legal Aid's county director, said the ruling is unusual because the case is not a class-action lawsuit, although several individual tenants brought suit against landlords in an action affecting hundreds of other people.

"We're using it as a legal leverage against landlords," Cohen said. "We're talking about enforcing landlords' business practices as a whole, not about the condition of the apartments. That's what makes this case so unusual. And whether they (landlords) have done this consistently over a period of time."

Cohen said the restraining order applies to the owners of rental property in Santa Ana's "poverty pockets" on South Minnie, North Logan, Mortimer and west Brook streets. Legal Aid lawyers submitted declarations signed by tenants, claiming that some landlords had threatened them with retaliatory action.

Landlord Threats Denied

Esposito could not be reached for comment, but his attorney, Terence L. Calder, of Santa Ana, said that Esposito, who owns six Brook Street buildings, never threatened or intended to make any threats to tenants. According to court documents, none of the declarations names Esposito.

Luis Rodriguez, Santa Ana deputy city attorney, said that although the city posted notices ordering Esposito to vacate by today four of his buildings that were found unsafe and "substandard" because he failed to repair them within a given time, no city action is expected.

During the demonstration, marchers chanted "Down with Esposito!"in Spanish, as passers-by gave the protesters curious looks.

Many tenants expressed satisfaction with the court's order and the growing number of tenants joining the strike.

"We're going to continue fighting against the landlord and hope that he cleans up the apartments. We won't stop until we win," declared Alfredo Torres, one of the tenant leaders.

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